January/ February 2013 Thenceforward and Forever Free, Mostly

Deserving of neither blanket condemnation nor blind exaltation, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a brave compromise.

By Louis P. Masur

Lincoln’s political problems were not only domestic, but international as well. In the first year of the war, a delicate diplomatic game was afoot as the Confederacy sought aid and recognition from foreign nations, while Lincoln’s administration worked feverishly to prevent European involvement. England, in particular, posed the greatest threat. Some 80 percent of Britain’s cotton came from the United States, so they had an interest in safeguarding the South, and it was well known that the English aristocracy disdained the democratic politics of the Union.

Meanwhile, the war was not going well. The Union’s “Peninsula Campaign,” which had aimed at taking Richmond in the spring and summer of 1862, was a failure, and morale was low. Something needed to be done, or the Union would lose.

It was during this time that Lincoln found a way to sidestep his constitutional reservations about emancipating the slaves. As president, he felt he could not act constitutionally to intervene against slavery, but as commander in chief, he could act on the grounds of military necessity. Since slave labor helped the Confederacy wage war, freeing the slaves could be interpreted constitutionally not as an act of meddling in states’ rights, but as a blow to the Confederate war effort. Lincoln would later defend the Proclamation on those grounds, reminding Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase that “the original proclamation has no Constitutional authority or legal justification except as a military measure.”

Lincoln also overcame his earlier anxiety about the border states, believing that while they might initially condemn the Emancipation Proclamation, the time for a possible secession had passed: Union military presence was simply too well established to permit it. Emancipating the slaves in the Confederacy would serve to isolate the border slave states, leaving them no choice, Lincoln believed, but to eventually abolish the institution on their own.

Lincoln also eventually became persuaded that acting against slavery would win more support than condemnation abroad. Several days before issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln told a Chicago delegation, “Emancipation would help us in Europe and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition.”

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln informed the cabinet of his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, later explaining, “I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operation we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game.” In the ensuing discussion, Secretary of State William H. Seward recommended that the Proclamation be deferred until a Union military victory so it would not be seen as a desperate measure taken on the retreat. Lincoln agreed. Victory came on September 17 at Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history.

Five days later, on September 22, Lincoln publicly issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It stated his intention to authorize the emancipation of slaves in any area still in rebellion as of January 1, 100 days away. That period would serve as a testing ground for the decree, a volatile time for the Union that easily could have shaken Lincoln’s resolve.

On October 1, 1862, Lincoln traveled to Antietam to visit the troops. Charles Fessenden Morse, an officer with the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, guided Lincoln’s party and afterward wrote a letter to his family in which he praised the Emancipation Proclamation: “It gives us a decided policy, and though the President carefully calls it nothing but a war measure, yet it is the beginning of a great reform and the first blow struck at the real, original cause of the war.” The soldiers would fight not only for the goal of preserving the Union, but for emancipation as well.

Some soldiers also recognized the decree’s international import. A private in the 72nd Pennsylvania wrote to his father that “foreign nations will now have to come out flat-footed and take sides; they dare not go with the South, for slavery, they will all be ranged on our side.” The private may have been overly confident, but the delicate diplomatic game did begin to tip in favor of the Union. While some members of the British aristocracy were troubled by the Proclamation as an unwarranted assault on Southern rights to property, they did not act on behalf of the Confederacy. Any threat of intervention passed in October when the British prime minister announced that his government would “continue merely to be lookers-on.”

Domestic, not international, politics took center stage with the fall congressional elections. Many thought the contests would serve as a referendum on the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. When the results were tabulated, Lincoln’s Republican Party suffered heavy losses, losing twenty-eight seats in Congress as well as the governorships of New York and New Jersey. Even the president’s home district in Illinois went to the Democrats. In response, correspondents implored Lincoln to abandon his plans for emancipation, but he refused. Lincoln chose instead to interpret the elections as a referendum not on emancipation but on the stalled progress of the war. When a group of Kentucky Unionists visited him in November, he stood his ground, proclaiming that he would “rather die than take back a word of the Proclamation of Freedom.”

Not only did Lincoln hold to his plan despite intense political pressure, he also made the final document more powerful. While the preliminary decree had expressed continued support for publicly popular efforts “to colonize persons of African descent,” the final Proclamation made no mention of colonization at all. In addition, Lincoln authorized the enlistment of blacks into the armed services of the United States, a radical move he had opposed just a year earlier. By war’s end, nearly 180,000 black men served in the Union Army, and more than 18,000 served in the Navy. Their efforts not only helped to win the war, but also played a crucial role in African American self-empowerment and the struggle for civil rights in years to come. In March 1864, Private Thomas Long, of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, told his comrades, “If we hadn’t become sojers, all might have gone back as it was before … but now tings can never go back, because we have showed our energy, our courage & our naturally [natural] manhood.”

Lincoln also added a clause to the drily legalistic final version of the Emancipation Proclamation that lifted it toward moral grandeur: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

January 1, 1863, the day the Proclamation would be signed, was to be a banner day, the Day of Jubilee. The night before, at a contraband camp for escaped slaves in Washington, hundreds gathered to pray and sing through the night. At midnight, one man began to weep, and when asked why he was crying he answered, “Tomorrow my child is to be sold neter more.”

Louis P. Masur is a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University and the author of "Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union."